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The Émigré Aesthetic

The Émigré Aesthetic

The newest chapters in the Russian-American-Jewish story.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Some years back, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were participating in an English conversation class I was leading would ask about the American writer Jack London, whose “The Call of the Wild” and many other books are translated into Russian and widely read. With enthusiasm, they’d explain that they were drawn by his sense of adventure and struggle; London was an advocate for the rights of workers and the oppressed. One of the many things that surprised them about America was that London — whose works, like “The Call of the Wild,” were very popular in the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century — is no longer among America’s most popular writers.

These days, when I talk to Jewish writers who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the American writer that many mention most often and most admiringly is Bernard Malamud, a son of Russian immigrants.

Boris Fishman, whose first novel “The Replacement Life” was published earlier this year, told The Jewish Week, “Malamud is melancholy. Ultimately, he has a grim view of the world as a place of suffering, but with blasts of magic and light. That’s how I see the world. It’s a very old worldview. You do your best, but things don’t often go your way.” Others among the new generation of Russian-American writers have also spoken of Malamud’s influence.

This year may be the golden year of Russian-American-Jewish writing, with novels and memoirs by Fishman as well as Gary Shteyngart (“Little Failure”), David Bezmozgis (“The Betrayers”), Lev Golinkin (“A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka”), Yelena Akhtrioskaya (“Panic in a Suitcase”), Anya Ulinich (“Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel”), Ellen Litman (“The Last Chicken in America”), Lara Vapnyar (“The Scent of Pine,”) Maxim Shrayer (“Leaving Russia”) and others; they join the ranks of Sana Krasikov, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2009 for her debut story collection (“One More Year”). Call it soulfulness or melancholy, they wrestle creatively with their old world and the new.

All of these writers came to North America as young people, along with their parents and sometimes grandparents as well, and had to learn English. Often, they became the translators of language and customs to their families. Many would agree that the transition, living between two worlds and observing the details, is powerful, if unconscious, training for writers. New stories emerge as they witness the dramas of leaving and arriving, loss, survival, reinvention and hope.

This new wave of writers — new voices to celebrate — may be the literary heirs not only of Malamud, but of others, like Philip Roth, Grace Paley and Mordecai Richler, who had one foot in their parents’ immigrant world and other other firmly planted in America.

In these pages, we offer reviews of some of the latest titles, and have invited two recently published authors to reflect on their immigrant, and literary, experiences.